April 2017 and another season is drawing ever closer to its conclusion. Chelsea look set to claim their fifth Premier League title; Sunderland only have a few more weeks before the warm embrace of the Championship consumes them and Arsenal fans are still doing the proverbial ‘Hokey Cokey’ over Arsene Wenger (that’s what its all about).
It seems appropriate to begin reflecting on what has been, in comparison to last year, a rather underwhelming season. Still how could you possibly top Leicester’s heroics? In short, you cannot. One of the Foxes’ marvels was Riyad Mahrez. The Algerian twinkle toes was awarded the PFA Player’s Player of the Year award in recognition of his integral part in a fairytale which, to this day, seems incomprehensible.
An individual award in a team sport seems an odd notion. Still, in a world where medals are apparently given to those simply for taking part, it seems apt we reward our best and brightest with glittering trophies.
The PFA Young Player of the Year 2015/16 was awarded to Dele Alli. A swashbuckling teenager with frightening raw talent. Now, a year on, he is no longer a teenager but a 21-year old with medium-rare talent and a great chance of retaining this coveted prize. It will not be easy though. His opposition includes Jordan Pickford, Michael Keane, Romelu Lukaku, Leroy Sane and Harry Kane.
In a Sunderland team lost at sea under the stewardship of Captain Moyes, Jordan Pickford (and Jermain Defoe) represents a beacon of light in the depressing darkness. A long-term injury to Vito Mannone at the beginning of the season afforded Pickford the chance to seize the first team mantle, and seize it, he did.
If you study his Premier League record, it does not make for pleasant viewing. Just 3 clean sheets and 43 goals conceded. Still, when you factor in the white flag the Sunderland defence have been waving all season you realise just how impressive these statistics are.
Behind Burnley’s Tom Heaton, he has made the most saves in the league; he is more than capable in aerial duels and is exceedingly quick off his line, without being reckless. Traditionally, goalkeepers do not mature fully in their position till their late 20s or early 30s. With Pickford, however, his growth in the role has seen Sunderland concede less than they should have and will lead to many Premier League suitors in the near future.
In terms of young English talent, Michael Keane is another worthy nominee of the PFA award. Along with his colleagues in the Burnley defence, they have turned the unassuming Turf Moor into a fortress. A mere 14 goals have been conceded at the Burnley ground this season, even more impressive when you consider the potency of many a strike force in the Premier League.
His assured manner marks him out as wise beyond his years. His actions are measured and although their away form has been far from perfect, he is likely to go on to bigger and better things in the near future. Along with John Stones, Keane threatens to dominate the centre back role for his nation for years to come and it seems only fitting that he is included in this year’s shortlist.
The Premier League’s top goalscorer is the indomitable Romelu Lukaku. Arguably one of the strongest candidates for the award, he has power and precision in enviable measures. His 23 goals in the league, none of which penalties, have illustrated a young man at the top of his game with a range of finishing many top strikers could scarcely dream of.
Everton now represent a Tour de Force and this is largely down to the blisteringly hot Belgian. One small reservation may be his anonymity in certain games. Nevertheless, with his emergence at such a tender age, we often forget how far this man still has to go. If he is able to unlock his considerable potential, he will reach the very top.
Of all Guardiola’s singings for Manchester City, Leroy Sane represents the smartest of investments. His statistics do not seem to reflect his potency. He has astonishing pace, allowing him to stand up defenders with consummate ease and draw others into the game with masterful trickery. He does not seem to represent the strongest of challengers for the award but to not recognise his extraordinary talent would be truly foolish.
Harry Kane must now be considered one of the elite strikers in Europe. In 23 Premier League appearances he has scored 19 and assisted four. He is essentially worth a goal a game. These are the type of numbers synonymous with messers Messi and Ronaldo.
Now this may comparison may be a stretch, yet there is no denying the Englishman’s ability. He has an insatiable hunger for goals and seems so assured in the box. He can score any kind of goal and can engineer a spark from the remotest of chances. Had he have played more, we might be looking at a two time recipient of the award. Instead, we move to the final candidate. The aforementioned Dele Alli.
It seems fashionable to wax lyrical about Dele Alli at the present moment and why wouldn’t it? At just 21 years of age he seems to be the complete package. A central midfielder who has scored 16 goals and assisted five more. Normally a young professional would look to a senior figure for guidance and somehow he seems to be the senior figure already.
Aside from a little petulance, he is reliable in defensive situations and lethal in attacking ones. His growth has been exponential since his days at MK Dons and this improvement shows no signs of ceasing. Under the guidance of the brilliant Mauricio Pochettino it seems only a matter of time before he stands with his Tottenham teammates atop the Premier League rostrum. He is, even with the wealth of young talent, the best young player in England.
Burnley 0-1 Manchester United: Three talking points from Turf Moor
Anthony Martial scored the only goal of the game as Manchester United recorded their third consecutive victory by seeing off Burnley at Turf Moor. In a game devoid of end-to-end entertainment, the Frenchman struck in the 54th minute when his right-footed shot found the net via the underside of the crossbar.
Burnley tried in vain to force a leveller but could not find a way past David de Gea, as their winless run extended to seven Premier League matches. United, meanwhile, have maintained their grip on second spot but remain 12 points drift of runaway leaders Manchester City. Here are three talking points…
United pass another away-day test
Despite rumours of unrest at Old Trafford, United are now unbeaten in eight Premier League matches. While their hopes of reeling in Manchester City may be remote, Jose Mourinho’s men are red-hot favourites to finish as runners-up. That would be a huge improvement on last season – their first under Mourinho – where United finished sixth. It was only their success in the Europa League that guaranteed them a place in the Champions League.
The Red Devils are definitely progressing and the expected arrival of Alexis Sanchez would give them another dimension. In particular, their away form will please Mourinho. This was United’s fifth victory in their past six Premier League games on their travels, a run that is helping to keep the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool at bay.
Burnley is a notoriously tricky place to visit, but United withstood the physical threat of the hosts and just about had enough to claim all three points.
Burnley are feeling the effects
When looking at the table, Burnley’s position appears to be very comfortable. In eighth place and with 34 points to their name, the Clarets are all but guaranteed to be playing Premier League football again next season. That would have been manager Sean Dyche’s priority and he can feel satisfied with the job he has done.
Nonetheless, this is a difficult period for Burnley, who have not tasted victory since they beat Stoke City on December 12. Scoring goals has been their biggest problem, having drawn a blank in four of their seven-game winless run. The Clarets are not renowned as being free-scoring – they have found the net only 19 times this season – and rely on a solid defensive foundation.
Perhaps the exertions of their promising start have taken their toll on a settled side. The challenge for Dyche, who had been linked with the Everton job during the height of Burnley’s success, is to ensure his players do not fall into the trap of thinking they have nothing to play for.
Martial is making rapid progress
The Frenchman began the campaign out of favour at United, but he has regained his place in the side thanks to a series of consistent performances. His output has been productive, too. His goal against Burnley was his third in a row, taking him to 11 for the season. Allied to his seven assists, Martial is beginning to fulfil his immense potential.
He cut a frustrated figure at being kept out of the starting XI by Marcus Rashford – there was even speculation he might be on his way out of Old Trafford. But Martial said all the right things publicly and is no longer in the ‘supersub’ category. Competition for places will only intensify if and when Sanchez’s switch from Arsenal is completed.
But the former Monaco starlet should not fear the Chilean’s arrival, but relish it. He has proved he can be a trustworthy player for United. Like Luke Shaw, he is another to have benefited from some stern words from Mourinho, who will soon have an embarrassment of attacking riches to call upon.
Manchester United 2-2 Burnley: Three talking points from Old Trafford
Jesse Lingard came off the bench to strike deep into injury-time as Manchester United came from two goals down to salvage a dramatic point against Burnley at Old Trafford on Boxing Day.
Going into the match with the chance to close the gap to Manchester City at the top of the table to ten points, the hosts got off to the worst possible start when Ashley Barnes poked home with just three minutes on the clock after a melee in the box.
And it went from bad to worse not long after when Steven Defour struck a superb free-kick out of the reach of David de Gea to leave the visitors dreaming of a first victory at Old Trafford since 1962.
Jose Mourinho rang the changes at half-time and it was Jesse Lingard who, just moments after missing a sitter from a yard out, hauled his side back into the match with a delicate back-heel finish.
United piled on the pressure as they went in search of an equaliser but they were met with typically determined defending by Burnley, until the ball dropped to Lingard in the second minute of time added on to fire home a shot into the corner and break Burnley hearts in the most dramatic of ways.
The result will do little to increase United’s title diminishing title hopes though, who now sit 12 points behind their rivals and have a game in hand against Newcastle United, whilst Burnley move to within a point of the top six.
United falter again as title drifts further away
For the second time in just a matter of days there was injury-time drama for Manchester United after substitute Jesse Lingard tucked home in the 92nd minute to salvage a late point for the hosts.
Whilst Boxing Day’s draw will leave a slightly better taste in the mouth than their one against Leicester City at the weekend as this time it was them who came from behind to claim a point right at the death, it does little to detract from the fact that the Premier League title is now all-but lost.
The gap between United and rivals Manchester City was reduced to 12 points on Tuesday but, considering City play a lowly Newcastle United later today, it’s likely to be up to a huge 15 points by Thursday morning.
Whilst Burnley were well-regimented and showed the defensive prowess that has become accustomed with Sean Dyche’s side this season, there was an all-too similar feeling of déjà vu from last season as the hosts failed to truly test Nick Pope despite amounting over 75% possession.
Jose Mourinho’s experiment with both Romelu Lukaku and Zlatan Ibrahimovic starting failed to produce any meaningful impact and, until Lingard’s intervention, they were staring an unlikely defeat in the face.
The Portuguese boss claimed post-match that there is ‘not enough’ funds being given to him to improve his squad – despite spending nearly £300million since taking over as manager – in comparison to Manchester City, but on the day there’s no debating they have the resources to beat a side like Burnley at home.
Surprise package Burnley continue to ruffle feathers
In a week that saw people tuck into turkey across the country for Christmas Day, Burnley continue to ruffle some feathers of their own after coming agonisingly close to claiming a first win against Manchester United at Old Trafford in 55 years.
After being convincingly beaten by Tottenham at home last time out, it was the perfect response from the Clarets in a match that proved they have the temperament to battle with the best teams in the league.
It was arguably a classic snatch and grab performance from the visitors, taking their two chances from set-pieces with their only two shots on target of the game, but their fast start enabled them to soak up pressure inside their own half and get ten men behind the ball.
Whilst a point will come with mixed emotions due to the manner in which they were pegged back during injury-time, it maintained their mightily impressive run on the road against the top six sides.
This season Dyche’s side have already beaten Chelsea and drawn with Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester United, picking up more points (six) than any other team in the Premier League so far.
Not many would have expected Burnley to be able to continue their fine start but, with over half of the campaign done and dusted, there’s a real possibility that they could achieve something miraculous this season, and the likes of Arsenal will now be nervously looking over their shoulders.
Lingard to the rescue as substitute continues purple patch
Whilst Manchester United may be in the midst of what some would call a ‘slump’ having won just two of their past five Premier League matches, one positive to come from their run is Jesse Lingard.
The 25-year-old has quietly gone about his business this season under the radar, slowly becoming one of the first names on Jose Mourinho’s team sheet and ousting the likes of Anthony Martial, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Marcus Rashford.
And after being a squad player for the best part of the last few seasons at Old Trafford, every now and then popping up with a vital goal – such as the FA Cup final winner in 2016 – he has suddenly taken his game to the next level as a result of playing in a more free, central role behind the strikers.
Deployed behind Romelu Lukaku his pace can turn defence into attack in an instance for United as shown against Watford and Arsenal, and it was his impact from the bench that earnt his side a point.
Some may question why he didn’t start considering his prolific recent form but he made up for lost time once introduced at half-time, producing a sublime back-heel flick into the far corner to reduce the home side’s arrears before being in the right place in the 92nd minute to fire a half-volley home.
It could have been an even better afternoon for the England international too had he not been denied from a yard out by Nick Pope but, on the day, his manager will be thankful for his exploits.
For a man that has rarely been spoken about as a future first-team player he’s certainly giving people something to think about, and his brace – the first to be made by a United substitute since 2015 – now means that he’s been involved in more goals this season (six goals, four assists) than the likes of Eden Hazard, Dele Alli and Alexis Sanchez, and that’s not bad company to keep.
Three talking points as impressive Burnley downed Bournemouth
Burnley climbed to sixth in the Premier League thanks to a thoroughly deserved 2-1 victory away to Bournemouth. Goals from Chris Wood and Robbie Brady either side of half-time put the Clarets on course for all three points. And although Joshua King halved the arrears 10 minutes from time, the Cherries could not force an equaliser as they slipped to their first defeat since October.
With their seventh win of the campaign, the Lancashire outfit have moved above Tottenham Hotspur in the table, while Bournemouth dropped to 15th after an off-colour performance. Here are three talking points to emerge from a bitterly cold evening at the Vitality Stadium.
Sean Dyche triumphs in battle of the English managers
This game was billed as a contest between two of the brightest young managers in England – and there was a clear victor. Burnley dominated the 90 minutes and perfectly executed Sean Dyche’s game-plan. They never let Bournemouth get a foothold on proceedings and capitalised on the break.
The Clarets are often described as a long-ball side and dull, but the football they produced was far superior to that of Bournemouth, who are renowned as an attractive team to watch. Meanwhile, Dyche’s opposite number Eddie Howe – celebrating his 40th birthday – was left scratching his head after his side’s insipid display.
The Cherries headed into this clash three games unbeaten, but the worrying signs that appeared during the goalless draw with Swansea at the weekend were magnified here. There was precious little creativity and too much sideways passing. Tellingly, the midfield two of Harry Arter and Andrew Surman were completely outnumbered and outplayed.
Burnley’s remarkable transformation on their travels
Much was written about Burnley’s poor away form last season, which was in stark contrast to their results at Turf Moor. But from the moment they shocked Premier League champions Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on the opening day of the season, the Clarets have looked perfectly at ease on their travels.
This victory over Bournemouth followed wins against Everton and Southampton, as well as draws with Liverpool and Spurs. Burnley’s only away defeat came at table-topping Manchester City. These 14 points are double what they earned in the entirety of last season. It is a remarkable turnaround and testament to the work Dyche has done with his well-drilled squad.
Each player knows his own role inside out. In truth, they never looked in any trouble against Bournemouth once Wood had opened the scoring. On this evidence, it is no surprise to see Burnley riding high in the table – they are there on merit and will continue to succeed if taken lightly.
Goals are in short supply for timid Bournemouth
In their first two seasons in the Premier League, Bournemouth entertained audiences with goals aplenty at both ends of the pitch. The dramatic 4-3 victory over Liverpool and 3-3 draw against Everton spring to mind. This season though, excitement has been replaced with pragmatism.
The Cherries have become harder to beat, but the trade off has been that, despite the arrival of a striker of Jermain Defoe’s pedigree, they have found goals tougher to come by. Bournemouth have scored 12 times in 14 matches so far, with a third of those coming in the 4-0 thumping of Huddersfield Town earlier this month.
The challenge facing Howe is to get the best of both worlds. In a division as competitive and unforgiving as the Premier League, that is no easy task. But the consensus is, currently, the Cherries have compromised too much on the brand of football which has made them so watchable.
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